Coloniality of Knowledge

by Gesa Mackenthun, 04/19/2016.


“Coloniality of knowledge” is a theoretical concept adapted from the Latin American intellectual Aníbal Quijano into recent decolonial thinking in North America. It is based on the insight that colonial societies have systematically banished indigenous forms of knowledge from their archives, together with rejecting the media in which this knowledge was (and is) transported. Our project is particularly concerned with the coloniality of archaeological knowledge about the ancient human presence in North America – with the ways in which the formation of knowledge in the space-related sciences was (often unwittingly) inflected by the colonial relationships between the Anglo-Saxon majority and indigenous peoples. The purpose of the decolonial project is to bring together new evidence from various fields – such as visual studies, material studies, and oral studies – to help reinstall epistemologies that were formerly hidden due to the colonial dominance. One such area of knowledge is the growing field of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).

The project “Constructions of American Antiquity” is crucially concerned with the ways in which knowledge is produced in situations of colonial encounter – in this case how the distant, pre-colonial past has been variously constructed or invented at different points in history and under the conditions of ongoing colonial relations between colonizing (especially Anglo-American) societies and indigenous peoples. Except for very early contacts, colonial encounters have been characterized by “radically asymmetrical relations of power,” as Mary Louise Pratt points out.[1] Political hegemony has been achieved by direct control of territories, human bodies, and the social interaction between human beings, but also, significantly, by the control of human minds. Early modern colonizers were well aware of this fact and made sure that indigenous epistemological traditions were destroyed, denounced, and interrupted.


The Colonial Destruction of Indigenous Knowledge

The destruction of Mexican codices by Franciscan friars, documented by the first‑generation mestizo Diego Muñoz Camargo in his Descripción de Tlaxcala of 1585, illustrates this process.

Fig. 1: Destruction of Mexican Codices. Diego Muñoz Camargo, “Descripción de la ciudad y provincia de Tlaxcala” (c. 1585). Sp Coll MS Hunter 242 (U.3.15) folio 242r (Glasgow University). Source: Andreas Beer/Gesa Mackenthun, eds. Fugitive Knowledge 14.

The image can be seen to visualize a competition for epistemic hegemony, with the deities and ancient rulers angered and potentially liberated from textual control by the friars’ firebrands. They seem to come to life in the flames of the auto‑da‑fé, as so many demons liberated by the sorcerer’s apprentice. Camargo’s drawing also reminds us of the strange tendency of colonial powers to document their acts of devastation, thereby leaving a trace of the former existence of the knowledges they have gone to such lengths to repress. From a diachronic perspective, such traces – such knowledge of the destruction of knowledge – can be the starting point for critically re-examining established historiographies, myths, and narratives.

The image shows that the friars were very conscious of the fact that these codices were indeed texts – thus contradicting later assertions that textual media were completely unknown to and not produced by indigenous Americans. This contention was later expanded into the claim, made under the influence of Hegel’s nexus between textuality and historicity, that Native Americans, and other ‘primitive’ peoples, had no history because they had no texts. Until quite recently, Western scholarship was almost slavishly dependent on the existence of (printed) texts as the only medium considered to be reliable. While visual media, material artifacts, architectural forms, archaeological findings, and spatial structures are now beginning to enjoy a certain degree of respectability in historical scholarship, the same cannot be said about indigenous oral traditions. These sources are only just beginning to receive the attention they deserve in historical and, just as importantly, juridical contexts (see Cruikshank; Finnegan; Brown; Echo-Hawk; Southwest Aboriginal Land and Sea Council).

The destruction of non‑European archives and the denial of non‑European forms of communication was often explained with the claims that these knowledges were primitive, naive, irrational, obscure and incoherent – in other words, just a series of myths and fairy tales. Such colonial prejudices need to be unpicked and rejected by careful re-examining the existing data – from archaeological sites to oral traditions. Descriptions of fabulous places which were considered unreliable may turn out to be less untrustworthy if corroborated by archaeological evidence (see, for example, Neil Safier’s essay on early colonial reports about ancient settlements in the Amazon basin whose existence was doubted for many centuries but is now proven with the help of archaeological evidence).

The asymmetrical preservation and transmission of knowledge in cultural contact zones, then, is the result of indigenous forms of knowledge having been disarticulated, belittled, and demonized. Such methods are not unique to colonial contact situations. The history of Europe provides abundant material for the disarticulation of certain forms of knowledge as well. The history from below is concerned with retrieving what Michel Foucault has called “subjugated knowledges.”[2] But, like indigenous knowledge effaced by colonial science, the “savoir des gens” should not be considered as a ready‑made and continuous counter‑hegemonic archive waiting to be uncovered. Rather, it is available to us in often fragmentary and elusive form, provoking manifold attempts at intelligent gap-filling (see Beer/Mackenthun).


Colonialidad del poder: The Latin American Origins of the Concept

In his book The Darker Side of Modernity (2011), Walter Mignolo has suggested the term “coloniality of knowledge” to capture this phenomenon. Referring to Aníbal Quijano’s essay “Colonialidad del poder, cultura y conocimiento in America Latina” (1997) and later texts in which Quijano develops his concept, Mignolo (and other former members of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group collective) use the term “coloniality” to describe the ongoing colonial access to, as well as the distribution, production, and reproduction of knowledge, an often subtle process that ultimately excludes and occludes alternative epistemes (or ways of knowing). Against the dominance of the colonial episteme they promote a “decolonial option”[3] – attempts to uncover the hidden knowledges of colonized peoples that were systematically effaced by colonial science. For scholars working within the academy, this project – which is analogous to Chakrabarty’s project to “provincialize” Western knowledge – involves a significant amount of self-critique because it demands of them to ‘decolonize’ the epistemic systems within which they work: the canons of knowledge which their profession has generated, as well as the theories and methods of scientific knowledge-making which they have learned to employ.

Walter Mignolo and other adherents of the “decolonial option” are deeply suspicious of what they see as colonial theories and thinkers (e.g. race theory; theories of civilizational hierarchies), and they attempt to replace them with supposedly indigenous concepts which, they argue, can be fruitful in efforts to unhinge the modern colonial world system. Often these ideas come from Latin America, but Mignolo has underlined that other world regions, like China and India, also offer alternative epistemic concepts.[4] Apart from the fact that it is questionable in our age of globalization whether a complete escape from the colonial world of knowledge is possible, decolonial thinkers have received some critiques from feminist and postcolonial scholars for their lack of opening themselves up toward non-male and non-academic forms of knowledge (see Rivera Cusicanqui). Any endeavor to repair the damaged cross‑cultural archive can only be successful if it includes the strengths of diverse epistemic communities and disciplinary fields – if it actually attempts to bridge the chasms that were dug by the Western educational system – and moves toward a more holistic approach of knowledge acquisition. Education – whether “aesthetic” or more general – is the means for doing so (Spivak). This project of interdisciplinary ‘decolonization’ represents an enormous challenge for scholars who trained for years, or even decades, in their respective fields and within institutions designed to uphold the barriers between these fields.

The critical investigation and demystification of colonial knowledge works in tandem with initiatives to resuscitate indigenous knowledge, for example in the growing field of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). The existence of this alternative knowledge in the area of ecological management is owing to its preservation by indigenous bearers of knowledge. Through its constant adaptation to new environmental situations, traditional ecological knowledge is valuable for attempts to prevent the continuing destruction of precious habitats and the environment in general (see Menzies; Peat).



[1] Pratt, Imperial Eyes 7.

[2] Michel Foucault, “Two Lectures” 81, 83. See Hock/Mackenthun, Entangled Knowledge 8-16; for “history from below,” see Sharpe.

[3] Mignolo, Darker Side xv-xvi et passim.

[4] Mignolo, Darker Side 321.



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